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Reading Narrative: More than Moral Illustrations

No doubt, reading your Bible is an endeavor in and of itself. Often, I find myself defaulting to Paul’s letters or other “more direct” teaching in the New Testament to fuel my soul. However, in doing so I often lose sight of the broader narrative of Scripture—that overarching story of God’s dealing with a people for His purpose.

Reading biblical narrative is a helpful way to remedy some of that imbalance in my Bible reading. And yet, there’s a reason why it’s hard to sit down and fuel your soul with narrative. For starters, we don’t know how to read this genre. There is a way you read narrative; there is a way you read proverbs and poetry, and another way to read epistles. These genres, while equal in importance, are not equal in method. While there are many things to be looking for in narrative, I want to key into one aspect of narrative interpretation: sequence of events.

“There’s a reason why it’s hard to sit down and fuel your soul with narrative.”

Maybe the most basic question we can ask of the text is this: “Why is this part of the narrative happening next?” Now, in some ways that is not super helpful. Sometimes narrative is just telling you simple progression of plot. However, that’s precisely my point. You, the reader, need to be paying close enough attention to the text to recognize that the author is either A. simply progressing the story (which is still important) or B. totally throwing off your expectations as a reader and making a point by doing so.

Example 1

A great example of this is the Passover narrative of Exodus 12-13. We need to ask the question, “Why is the passover meal happening right now in Exodus 12-13?” The reason this is such an interesting question is because up until now, we’ve had a very structured and predictable pattern of Moses, Aaron, Pharaoh, and the Lord going back and forth and judging Egypt. This has happened for nine different plagues, and it’s setting you up as a reader for a tenth. However, as soon as we get to the tenth plague, the strategy, pace, and content from the author changes dramatically. How so?

After the tenth plague is announced in chapter 11, the author breaks pattern and spends two chapters, not detailing the plague (only 4 verses are for that), not focusing on Moses’ interaction with Pharaoh, but instead spends the majority of two chapters detailing the passover lamb and the unleavened bread. The author is setting you up by his sequence of events for a sort of “climax” in the plot in chapters 12-13, and he does so with an incredible focus on the means of God’s deliverance and how the people should remember it. This type of sequencing keys you in to what the author thinks is the main point and main emphasis. This, in turn, needs to be your focus and your emphasis as you meditate.

Example 2

Another example of “sequence” and its importance is the episode of Cain and Abel in Genesis chapter 4. An incredibly familiar story for most of us. We may be tempted in our quiet time to summarize this as a simple moralism: don’t hate your brother. Or maybe we do a step better: unhindered sin produces a murderous heart, etc., etc. These are all valid observations, but when we ask the question, “Why is this part of the narrative happening next?”, we are one step closer to understanding what the original author’s intent was for his audience.

Immediately prior, in chapter 3, we read about the Fall of mankind in verses 1-13. In verses 14-24, we read the details and ramifications of that curse. Most importantly, we see the discrepancy between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent with a promise that the seed of the woman will prevail (“bruise your head”). It is immediately following this event that we see the struggle of Cain with the command of the Lord, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door.” Cain, as a character, is poised to repeat the failures of his parents in regard to God’s Law and follow the pattern of the serpent.

“Protect yourself from erroneous doctrine and empty moralisms in your devotions by submitting your spiritual growth to the original intent of the author.”

In dramatic fashion, brother kills brother, giving into sin. The seed of the woman is killed, and the other is left as a cursed murderer. Again, keeping this narrative “sequence” in mind, the author proceeds to track the seed of Cain through 4:24. The author is very concerned with offspring, just like Genesis chapter 3. Then in verse 25 we read that Adam has another son, Seth. This one is to be in the stead of Abel, “for Cain killed him.” It is only after Seth’s line is announced that the author tells the reader, “At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord.”

This brother murder episode is not random! This is not some spicy illustration for dysfunctional family counseling. Rather, discerning the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent becomes one of the most critical theological categories of the entire Bible (see also Hebrews 11:4-5; John 3:11-15)! And the biblical authors do this in very strategic and observable ways, one of which being the sequence and ordering of narrative events in Genesis 3 and 4. You, the reader, need to key in to the main concern of the author. One of the most rewarding things you can do as a student of the Word is to seek to understand the original intent of the author. An easy way to do so is to ask the simple question, “Why is this part of the narrative happening next?”

The result of training your meditation and observation this way will accomplish at least 3 things: 1. It will force you to connect the story of the Bible in ways you’d never considered before and therefore see your place in its story like you’d never considered before. 2. It will develop the highest view of God’s Word as you recognize the supernatural work of the authors through its Author—God—and 3. You will protect yourself from erroneous doctrine and empty moralisms in your devotions by submitting your spiritual growth to the original intent of the author.

I pray that we grow as a people into the highest view of our biblical authors (and Author) and begin to see more clearly every day the glory and mercy of God through the sequence of His redemptive work on our behalf.